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Bishops Move Cautiously

From New York Times

Two months after America's Roman Catholic bishops adopted broad new policies to defuse a sexual abuse crisis, 31 bishops say they have moved swiftly to remove or suspend 114 priests, throwing dozens of parishes into turmoil, according to a survey of the nation's dioceses by The New York Times.

But despite the bishops' overwhelming vote at their June meeting in Dallas to strip past abusers of their collars and ministries, many bishops have not yet lived up to that promise. Some bishops say they have not acted because they need more time to revamp the local church panels that review abuse cases, the survey found. Others are hesitating until they see whether the Vatican accepts the new American policies.

"We're waiting for instructions from Rome as to how to proceed," said the Rev. Kevin Slattery, a spokesman for the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., where several priests accused of abuses were suspended before the Dallas conference but have not been permanently removed from ministry.

In addition, 55 dioceses said they had not yet appointed a coordinator to offer pastoral care to victims of sexual abuse one of the simpler mandates in the Dallas policy, the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

The bishops intended their resolution in Dallas to be the turning point to restore trust in a church torn by scandal, and indeed they have galvanized dioceses across the country to initiate a flurry of measures to prevent sexual abuse. Many are recruiting laypeople to serve on diocesan boards that review abuse cases, conducting background checks on church employees and setting up abuse awareness programs for parents and staff.

The Times surveyed the nation's 194 dioceses by telephone late last month and early this month. Of the 177 Roman Catholic and 17 Eastern Rite dioceses that were contacted, 119 responded; 18 of those declined to answer some of the questions.

It is clear from the results that the bishops are still struggling to realize the "zero tolerance" promise they made in Dallas to sweep the church clean of every priest who ever abused a child. In some dioceses, like Chicago and Detroit, years of controversy may be ahead as priests removed from ministry prepare to appeal their removal in church courts.

Many bishops have avoided disciplining priests they regard more as brothers than employees. Spokesmen in dioceses like Jackson said their bishops had made no moves because the Vatican might refuse to give its approval, known as a recognitio, to the bishops' charter.

"There is some hesitation on the part of the bishops," said the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests Councils, a coalition of diocesan priests' groups. "Because if they go ahead and implement the charter and then the recognitio doesn't come, then they'd have to undo what they've done."

Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, the spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, "Our impression is that quite a few bishops did move very quickly after Dallas to remove abusive priests who were in ministry."

"Others have said they want to see the Vatican's reaction," Monsignor Maniscalco said. "But that shouldn't leave the impression that priests are being left in situations where they can harm children."

In only a handful of cases have bishops asked the Vatican to take the more drastic step of permanently removing a cleric from the priesthood, a process known as laicization, the survey found. One of those priests is in Phoenix, and has served a prison sentence. Two priests in Chicago have requested their own laicizations.

A Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, has said that the bishops' Dallas charter is now under careful review, and he could not predict when the Vatican would have its response. The document must pass muster at many Vatican departments, including those that oversee priestly life and church doctrine, to ensure that it does not run afoul of church law and theology.

There is concern among some Vatican officials and church experts that the American bishops' policy is too punitive, tipping the scales to the point where, these authorities believe, priests are not given the protection they should have from the church. Some critics in the Vatican have chastised the bishops for giving in to secular pressure.

The American bishops are asking the Vatican to alter some provisions in canon law for the church in the United States, including dropping the church's statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases. Some church sources have recently speculated that the Roman curia may reject aspects of the bishops' policy, but Monsignor Maniscalco said the bishops had received no such indication.

"The bishops are aware they are requesting something that will have to be exceptional law in this country, meaning that it is an exception from the law of the rest of the church," Monsignor Maniscalco said. "It is a lot to ask, but we think it is worth asking for."

In their charter, the bishops agreed to permanently remove from ministry any priest who committed even one abusive act against a child, to report every abuse accusation against priests to government authorities, to conduct background checks on all church employees who work with children, to establish abuse prevention programs and to appoint special ministers to help abuse victims as well as lay committees known as review boards to assess accusations against priests.

In the telephone survey, carried out by The Times' news research and other staff, church officials were asked to review their compliance with each of those commitments.

The results indicated that in many dioceses, including some headed by bishops who had previously expressed opposition to so-called zero-tolerance policies, the Dallas conference was a watershed that had stirred broad changes.

For instance, in Dallas the bishop of Albany, Howard J. Hubbard, led a last-minute challenge to the charter, arguing that zero tolerance did not allow exceptions for priests who had abused in the past but who had never offended again and were now effective ministers. But within days of his return to Albany, Bishop Hubbard announced the permanent removal from ministry of six priests, including two former vice chancellors of the diocese and a theologian who once had a nationally syndicated television program. Two others he removed had been popular local pastors, and Bishop Hubbard's announcement provoked some expressions of outrage in their parishes. Four of the Albany priests had been living in church housing, and their banishment forced them to move in with friends or relatives.